Interview: Zeshan Bagewadi On 'Melismatic,' George Floyd Protests And COVID-19 NPR's Lulu Garcia Navarro speaks with singer Zeshan Bagewadi about his new album Melismatic, solidarity between communities of color and the link between the sounds of soul and Indo-Pakistani music.

Zeshan B On 'Melismatic' And Creating Music That Champions Brown Power

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Zeshan Bagewadi is, in many ways, a classic soul singer. He channels the music of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding.


ZESHAN BAGEWADI: (Singing) I want to stay. Won't run away, no. I want to play just like we used to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Zeshan B, as he's known, has a signature take on soul, singing in English and Urdu on his new album. It's called "Melismatic." And it's his first collection of all original music. And Zeshan B joins me now from his home in Baltimore. Welcome to the program.

BAGEWADI: Thank you for having me, Lulu. It's a pleasure to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is a pleasure to have you. How are you holding up?

BAGEWADI: (Laughter) Oh, best as I can. You know, we're - in some ways, you know, we're all sort of in this together, aren't we?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hmm. You are the son of Indian Muslim immigrants. And social justice is front and center on this album and in much of your music, and it seems like the death of George Floyd has hit you hard. Last weekend on Instagram and Facebook, you posted your rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," and you wrote this, no matter how smooth or sweet this Sam Cooke song is, no matter how calm I seem, I am still burning with rage like a lot of you. We need to make damn sure that a change is going to come from all this by any means necessary. That's a strong sentiment.

BAGEWADI: Well, I think that this is the time where strong sentiments need to be aired out. I think that we are at the breaking point. We are enraged at seeing all this play out, you know, in real time before our very eyes. And I think that when it comes to a change coming and this change that I sing about, I think it's time that people of my generation who have come of age during the Great Recession and the presidency of Donald Trump and the digital display of police brutality that we've seen time and time again - my generation - it's time that we take over, and I intend on being a part of that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, a kind of universal vision of equality comes out in the very powerful anthem "Brown Power."


BAGEWADI: (Singing) We've been marching so long. Wore our feet down to the bone. But we ain't tired, no. Got soul for miles, yeah. From Karachi to Michoacan, we've come so far, yeah, we keepin' on. And we risin' higher, yeah. Oh, higher, higher, higher. We been payin' our dues.

"Brown Power" is about the socio-political empowerment black and brown people here in America, through empathy for one another - you know, I mean, I think - I mean, Lulu, you and I can wax on this. I think there's a nexus that just naturally exists between pretty much all melanistic people in this world in that we...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Melanistic people, I like that.

BAGEWADI: ...In that we, at some point, were colonized, enslaved or disenfranchised by a white power structure. I mean, even though we all have disparate cultures and disparate languages and disparate narratives, that's the one sort of common strand of DNA that we have, right? Besides our beautiful melanin. And - you know? And so I think that we should find, you know, common ground with that. And that's what "Brown Power" is about.


BAGEWADI: (Singing) Brown power. Oh, brown power.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You grew up in Chicago. And you've spoken about the visceral link between American soul and Indo-Pakistani music. Tell me a little bit about that relationship.

BAGEWADI: Well, I think that relationship exists because both of those idioms of music - once again, it goes back to "Brown Power" - it's that common strand of DNA. What is it that we have in common? It's that at some point we were, you know, colonized, enslaved, oppressed. And, you know, in "Melismatic," I seek to draw out that nexus. If it's all right, I'd like to just talk about just the concept - it's called the blue note. And it's known in academic circles - you know, the blue note of black people. It's not just a straight note, you know, the note of blues in jazz. It is bent out of shape. It's jagged. It's born out of systemic oppression.

And I think that us brown people, we also have our own blue notes. And, you know, they're called melismas. For example, like, a straight note is (vocalizing). But the blue note of black people is (vocalizing) - you know, that's like - it's bent a little bit. And then the blue note of brown people - of people from Indian and Pakistan is like (vocalizing). You see? The - you don't just quite hit the pitch right on there. And so that thing just has always been a link between us and our music, and I love singing it.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to listen to "Nausheen," which you say is an ode to the intelligence, beauty and effervescence of South Asian women. Let's hear a bit.


BAGEWADI: (Singing) We were shooting for the same degree you work so quietly, eyes on the prize, not on a guy like me. I was tangled up in my own strings, learning how to spread my wings...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Who is Nausheen in this song?

BAGEWADI: (Laughter) Well, look. You know, Nausheen is not anybody in particular. It's - Nausheen, to me, represents the amazing South Asian women who have influenced me throughout my life, whether it be my mother, my grandmother, who had an enormous, enormous influence on me. In fact, my grandmother is the reason why I even speak Urdu, why I can even sing in Urdu and, you know, gave me a really strong appreciation of my culture and my people. And, you know, because of the, you know, misogyny that's so rampant in the Desi community and because of the fact that the bar is set so low for men, I think the result of that is a super race of super women. And so Nausheen is an ode to them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We can't end this interview without giving a special shout out to your wife, Dr. Alexandra Roybal, who is an anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and on the COVID-19 frontline. How are you two handling this?

BAGEWADI: In her case, she just is very driven and is very passionate about medicine - about giving medical care. And to her, it's like, well, this is what I was put on this Earth to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there a song on "Melismatic" that we could go out on and dedicate to your wife and all the frontline workers?

BAGEWADI: Oh, sure. I think "Only In My Dreams" - it's about the societal disparities that exist - you know, that COVID is disproportionately affecting minorities. And that song is all about the disparities that exist in our society, and so I would love to dedicate that to them.


BAGEWADI: (Singing) Don't wake me up 'cause you know that I've had enough. I go back to sleep 'cause this world isn't what it seems.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Zeshan Bagewadi - Zeshan B - his new album is called "Melismatic." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BAGEWADI: Thank you, Lulu.

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